Christmas! A time to share in the enjoyment provided by family and friends, and partake in the traditions that have been passed down through the generations. Going from home to home, enjoying the warmth of fireplaces and the viewing of trees, decorated as differently as the plurality of the populous that makes up the Maritimes that we call home. Retelling the stories of Christmases past and anticipating Christmases yet to come.
Sounds warm and wonderful, doesn't it?
But as much as Christmas itself is a tradition given strength by generations, so too is the tradition of "setting sail" for the open sea - and spending Christmas away from family and friends.
This brief outline of Christmas at sea is not meant to be an emotional account of how Christmas might have passed for the crews finding themselves away from home for the holiday season. Many members of my family have experienced this tradition, and so have I.
Spending Christmas away from home aboard a vessel of some type or another was becoming the norm for me during the late seventies and throughout the eighties, just as it was the norm for my father fifty years before that. You were quick to learn that, while aboard the vessels, your family at home was replaced by the members of the crew. They were now your family, with whom you would share your thoughts. With this crew, you would celebrate.
I remember one Christmas aboard a coastal freighter. The crew were told there would be no special celebration, no change in the daily routine aboard ship. Now, sailors are a meek, mild-mannered lot, but this caused some crew members to become somewhat disgruntled; they decided to celebrate in their own fashion. I, as a junior member of the crew, had no choice but to go along with their wishes. I should note here that the crew I'm referring to does not include the ship's officers. It was the bosun who orchestrated the events that were to take place for our Christmas celebrations.
It was decided that we would have a dinner and celebration in the crew's mess. There was nothing spectacular planned, but we were going to celebrate nonetheless. As Christmas morning arrived, the thoughts of being at home with our loved ones were with all encompassing. The day progressed in it's normal fashion; scraping and pounding ice of the ship's superstructure, greasing the running rigging, and so on. Lunch passed and the time for our dinner celebrations was approaching. Our thoughts of celebration were tempered by the realization that ship's officers would not be celebrating with us.
Finally, the day was done and we made our way into our cabins to get cleaned up for the much anticipated Christmas celebrations. As we were making ready for our arrival in the mess, we were hailed by the ship's chief mate; we were all to meet in the officer's mess. Immediately the thought that swept the crew was that the Old Man (the captain) was going to give us his Christmas speech. We assembled some what reluctantly in the officer's mess and the captain did give his speech, a speech I must say that was well received by the crew, though we were still in anticipation of our own celebrations waiting below. We headed back down and entered the mess - and were stunned at what befell our eyes.
Another account of my time spent at sea during the Christmas holidays was working offshore on an oil rig. This was a job that was totally dependent on the practicality of keeping the rig working at all times. Christmas was no exception to this rigid rule. There was no tree, there was no special dinner and there were no surprises. Christmas day aboard the oil rig was a day that passed with little excitement and little thought about festive celebrations. While on duty, whether you were working the tongs on the drill floor, running a stand of pipe from the derrick or making sure the ballast controls were all functioning in a proper fashion, one could not completely escape thoughts of Christmas at home. But these thoughts became even more salient when there was time, after your twelve hour shift, to discuss with your crew mates what Christmas would be like at your respective homes.
Yet not all thoughts of Christmas at home were received with warmth and acceptance. There were many times when being away from loved one at Christmas was more than some could bear. It was truly a measure of the Christmas spirit, when one crew member would console another who would simply break down and cry because he dearly missed his family. Such a scene would draw tears from the eyes of all who witnessed it, from men you thought could endure the harshest of realities facing them.
We completed our calls, and raised a few glasses in salute to our hosts and in praise of Christmas, but all too soon it was time for our return to the ship. Suddenly, a look of apprehension came over the two Danes. They had not informed the radio officer or any other member of the visiting party about our descent from the mountain top. The Danes explained to us that getting to the top had been the easy part. Getting down would be somewhat more difficult. You see, the gondola which had carried us aloft could only be used for hauling up and not carrying goods down. Why: To this day, I do not know! But there we were, faced with an avalanche of stairs to make our way down. As we bid farewell to our new found friends and made our way down the maze of stairs, I thought to myself how many people of the world would pray for a Christmas of this magnitude. Not only because of the uniqueness of the area, but also because of the comfort and warmth we could share with one another of Christmases past, while so many others of the world must search truly hard to find any fond memories.
Christmases at sea are seldom as exotic as on top of the Greenland mountain, but sailors would try to make the holiday as meaningful as possible, no matter the circumstances. Christmas was often spent tied up to a wharf, sheltered from the cold sea. The crew might spend a comfortable time in the fo'c'sle, enjoying a turkey dinner if they were lucky. Normally, a small Christmas tree would adorn the mess table, usually known as Chippy. Decorations for the tree might have been purchased at a local shop. Sometimes, members of the crew were even lucky enough to get off the vessel for some fun and celebrations ashore.
But this was not always the case. More often than not the vessel would be at sea. The crew would have to make their own tree. If the crew and Chippy were in the Christmas spirit, they would forge their own tree from whatever scraps of wood Chippy could provide. They would take four or five foot piece of lumber and shape it so one end was tapered; this would represent the truck of the tree. Then a hand drill would be used to make angled holes for the "branches". There were made using smaller pieces of wood shaped using a seamen's knife. For decorations, the cress might make paper snowflakes, stars and other ornaments our of tin cans. Paper chains and monkey's fists (a large square sailor's knot) were also used to decorate the fo'c'sle or mess.
Most ships that were tied up along a wharf would normally have Christmas trees fasted to the top. In the early I900s, drink and partying were a way of life aboard many ships and Christmas was no exception. During some of the celebrations there was plenty of music and dance to be had and on some occasions a keg of rum adorned the fo'c'sle's table. Christmas away from the families for these sailors was spent with their present family, the crew. There was little in the way of communications in those days; phone calls to loved ones were unheard of. If you were lucky, mail (posted months before) might arrive around Christmas to brighten your seaboard life.
So as you can see, Christmas was not necessarily missed. The crews of the vessels would make due with what was at hand in order to celebrate. But the celebrations were always tempered by a sobering realization that home was a better place to be. We would much rather be with our loved ones left behind on shore.
*This article was originally published in Shunpiking magazine. Vol. 1, No. 1, December, 1995.
Mike Wamboldt first went to sea at the age of 17. He later returned to school, graduating with a MA in Marine Management from Dalhousie University, and was a longtime volunteer with the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic and marine editor of Shunpiking magazine. Principal of Index Inc., a marine marketing firm, he now works co-ordinating marine logistics for movies and has worked on Black's Harbour, The Titanic, The Shipping News, and other projects.
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